April 16, 2013



DEFIANCE:  Monday 9PM on Syfy – Change the Channel

Despite the prestige it earned with Battlestar Galactica, as a network Syfy has never fled from the tackiness of its genre (this is the home, after all, of Mansquito and Dinocroc), and its new series DEFIANCE is all latex make-up (it’s like we never got out of the Mos Eisley Cantina), backlot and soundstage sets, and mostly cheapie special effects.  It’s a futuristic grade-B (on a curve) western for fifth-graders, one that believes any cliche will magically be given new life if it’s set among aliens.

The story, created by Rockne S. O’Bannon (who has the distinction of two bum series in a single season, with Cult already to his discredit) and the team of Kevin Murphy and Michael Taylor, and directed by Scott Stewart, is set roughly 33 years from now, after alien races have invaded Earth and left the planet your basic post-apocalyptic landscape.  For almost 20 years, the humans and aliens fought deadly wars, until a group known as “the Defiant Few” laid down their arms, leaving an uneasy but so-far lasting peaceful coexistence among the species.  Nolan (Grant Bowler) was one of the Defiant Few, but now he roams the outerlands with his adopted alien daughter Irisa (Stephanie Leonidas), who has hot pink hair and a flattened snout.  They scavenge wreckage hoping for a big score and perhaps a journey to the supposed paradise of Antarctica.  Just when they’ve stolen a something-or-other that’s worth a fortune, they’re robbed by even scabbier scavengers, and after that, needing to raise funds, they enter the town that used to be St. Louis and is now called Defiance.

Defiance has a full complement of cliches, from the untried but feisty Mayor Rosewater (Julie Benz), to the lusty owner of the local bar/brothel–and also the Mayor’s sister–Kenya (Mia Kirshner), to the elderly sheriff–sorry, Lawkeeper.  There are two powerful clans in town:  the mineowning and human McCawleys and the landlord/moneylender alien Tarrs.  (We know the Tarrs are the bad ones because their leader has Lucius Malfoy’s hair.)  Do the McCawleys and Tarrs feud?  Is there a Romeo & Juliet romance between their teen children?  Are there instant sparks between Nolan and both the Mayor and her sister?  Is there a bantering hostility between Irisa and a young deputy that will certainly become something more?  By the end of the episode, does Defiance need a new Lawkeeper?  Is there a scene where Nolan and Irisa pack up to leave Defiance just at the time of its greatest need, and then decide that, damn it, they can’t just abandon the town?  Do you really need to watch?  The answer to only one of those is “no”.

Someone like Joss Whedon can take tropes like this and put a spin on them that makes them seem fresh (and he did exactly that in the short-lived but beloved Firefly).  But Defiance is perfectly content to shovel predictable story beats around with the occasional fake-curse thrown into the dialogue (ah, frakkin’ BSG) for relevance.  Even the climactic revelation of the real villain who called down the nearly fatal ambush on Defiance is a boring one.

The cast deserves better.  Bowler has a comfortable, old-fashioned leading-man swagger, and Benz and Kirshner have both proved elsewhere that they’re strong actresses who can handle multifaceted material.  Leonidas is very appealing as the sullen alien teen.  But there isn’t a moment in the two hours of the pilot where any of them gets to say or do something unexpected.  And apart from the money spent on the big last-reel battle scene (and don’t expect sequences like that in regular episodes), Defiance isn’t worthwhile for its production values, either, with less scale than a typical episode of Revolution.

The gimmick of Defiance is that it was simultaneously developed as both a TV series and a video game, and although Season 1 was finished before the game became commercially available, future seasons might be symbiotic with the game.  I can only speak for the show itself, and in whatever ways its various media may be cutting-edge with new technology, Defiance as a TV series is a thoroughly retro experience–and not in a good way.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."